Removal of shrubs reveals ancient Roman fort paths

After the rhododendrons were removed. Picture: contributed
After the rhododendrons were removed. Picture: contributed
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YOU often find a few unexpected things while tidying up your garden, but how about paths leading to a Roman fort?

Staff cutting back shrubs in the grounds of Mavisbank House, just outside Loanhead, have just revealed the ancient roads after a mass of rhododendron was removed.

Before the rhododendrons were removed. Picture: contributed

Before the rhododendrons were removed. Picture: contributed

Work is now under way by Historic Scotland to examine the find further to map out the former life of the site at the rear of the 18th century property.

Historic Scotland believes they could lead to an Iron Age earthwork which is thought to be a Roman fort and part of the reason why the second Baronet of Penicuik, Sir John Clerk, chose the site for his home when it was built between 1723 and 1727.

Peter Ranson, district architect for Historic Scotland said: “Although the rhododendrons are considered by some to be an attractive feature, it is an invasive species, which can cause serious damage to the underlying archaeology. Their removal has ensured the preservation of a possible Roman fort, while revealing a little bit of history which has been hidden for some time.”

The category A building passed out of the Clerk 
family in 1815 and after several changes of use including an asylum, was gutted by fire in 1973, leaving it in ruins ever since.

The shrubs themselves were carefully cut down by hand by Historic Scotland’s Monument Conservation Unit to make sure there was as little disturbance to the ground as 

Simon Milne, Regius Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, said the rhododendrons had been introduced in the 18th century as an “ornamental plant”. As well as covering up the site’s Roman history, he said that it was also “bad for biodiversity”.

“Once it’s taken hold it’s very difficult to get rid of so it’s a lot of hard work to remove and a species that we would like to remove from as many places as possible,” he said.

“It smothers everything else and thrives very well in the Scottish climate so we applaud people who are removing it.”

He added: “It regenerates very quickly if you don’t cut it or remove it.”

Chris Lewis, a trustee of the Mavisbank Trust, which was set up in 2002 to preserve the property, said: “We are delighted that Historic Scotland has undertaken this work which is a valuable contribution to our partnership’s ongoing plans to restore the house and grounds and make Mavisbank’s fascinating past more accessible to the public.”


RHODODENDRON ponticum is a species native to southern Europe and southwest Asia.

It is described as a dense, suckering shrub, or small tree, and can grow up to 16 foot tall.

It has evergreen leaves and violet or purple flowers, often with small greenish-yellow spots or streaks.

Though it had been present in Great Britain before the last Ice Age, it did not recolonise afterwards and the ecology of the island developed without it.

Therefore its presence today is due to humans introducing it and it easily naturalises and becomes a pest in some situations, often covering whole hillsides.

In Britain, it colonises moor and shady woodlands.